(Above image from Mother Jones)
I have made a lot of poor, even bad, choices in my life. I have always trusted too easily, loved too fully, and viewed the world through a pair of rose-colored lenses. That being said, even though many of my decisions have ended up being less than positive experiences, I doubt seriously that I would change most (or maybe any) of them, because they have made me who I am.
Now, having said that, for anyone who reads my blog but isn’t aware, I am very active in gun violence prevention (GVP). Even though I have met many, many survivors of gun violence over the past two years, I have to admit that it never dawned on me that I myself am a survivor of gun violence; not until December when I was on my way to Omaha for an Orange Vigil for the victims of the Sandyhook School shooting, and other victims of gun violence. I realized while I was driving that evening that based upon the way Everytown For Gun Safety defines a survivor, I would probably fit the profile. So I asked, and the response was, “Absolutely, you ARE a survivor.”
Even then, it didn’t enter my consciousness that I have actually had more than one brush with gun violence until last week. I’m not sure why this is, perhaps I blocked those times out, or possibly (more likely) I just never considered my story to be that important in the grand scheme of things. But I know that is not the case, because every single survivor has a story that is important, and those stories are helping to open hearts, to open eyes, and to change minds. And because of that, I decided to write down my three near brushes, actually far too close for comfort, experiences with gun violence, in case my story will help someone else feel less alone.
In January of 1978, just a week or so before my twentieth birthday, I was out at a disco (yes, I really am that old), celebrating another friend’s birthday. While I was inside enjoying myself, the abusive husband of a dear friend of mine came up to me, telling me, “Jan, I need to talk to you.” Well, it was too noisy inside, and this was January in North Dakota, so without really thinking about it, I got into the passenger seat of his car to talk to him. Now in those days, cars with electric door locks didn’t have a manual override for the passenger. This man proceeded to lock the doors, then took out a gun, which he held pointed directly at me, demanding, “I know (name withheld) is planning something, and I know you know what it is, so spill,” or words to that effect. Over the course of what was probably fifteen minutes, I sat there an lied so well that I still contend that I deserve an Oscar, especially since lying has truly never come easily to me. I insisted that I had absolutely no idea what she was planning, and then (thanks to a false sense of courage from the fact I was drinking maybe?), I told him, “You won’t shoot me, you don’t dare! There are probably 200 people less than twenty feet away. You’ll never get away with it.” Again, or words to that effect. Realize that I probably used some pretty choice curse words too. And being 19-almost-20, I was also at an age when we tend to believe that we are invincible; going to live forever. So, for whatever reason, I was able to be brash and forceful, and to finally get out of his car. My friend (we are still friends all these years later) was able to get on a plane a few days later, without him ever finding out what she had planned.
Fast forward to 1990; the year I left my ex-husband, the father of my children. At the time I was working for Dominoes Pizza as an in-store trainer, which is basically a fancy term for the driver who trained new drivers; and who was in charge of other drivers during the shifts that I worked. I had rented a small, three bedroom guest house after leaving my ex, and took pity of a Marine who was a part-time driver, and rented him a bedroom in my place. Unbeknownst to me, this guy, Steve was his name, slept with a gun under his pillow at night. And what a gun. It was a “Dirty Harry” type revolver – a great big, long, heavy gun. It was a .44 magnum, and to be honest, had I known about the gun, he would never have been allowed near my home. But I didn’t. One morning, after he left for work, my barely two-year-old son came walking out of Steve’s room, holding this gun, saying, “Bang, bang.” I probably don’t need to tell you that I jumped into action immediately, took the gun from my son, and then locked it up, do I? I called Steve on post, and his only response made me so angry that to this day, it’s lucky for him that I couldn’t physically reach him. When I told him what happened, he said (no joke), “Oops.” Oops? Seriously dude? Okay, that was a long time ago, my son wasn’t injured, and neither was anyone else, so I will calm down.
My third brush with gun violence was, without question, the most terrifying of the three, because there was a very real possibility that my children could have been injured or killed. It was either late January or early February of 1993. I had been homeless** since October 1992 (my children lived with their father), and just recently learned that my mom, back home in North Dakota, was fighting lung cancer. I agreed to go home, but wanted to find a way to spend some time with my kids before I left, so my mom wired me the money to rent a motel room with a kitchenette for a week. I still remember the place where we stayed, as if it was yesterday. At the time it was called “Super 7,” and was one of the few places in north San Diego County that rented by the week that also had kitchen facilities. It was not a nice place, not by a long shot. But it was clean, and it offered me the chance to spend some time with my son, who was two months shy of five-years-old, and my daughter, who had turned eight just a couple of months before.
During the week I was in that motel room, I developed a passing acquaintance with some of the other people who were staying there for long term visits. One of them was a woman I became friendly with, although to save my life, I don’t remember her name. There was also a man who had come down to San Diego County from either Victorville or Apple Valley (in California’s high desert) with his two “wives,” one of whom was pregnant, and several small children, including one little boy who was 14-months-old.
One evening, shortly after putting my kids to bed, I picked up the room phone and called the woman who I had more or less become friends with. Only instead of her answering, it was a police officer. When I asked where my friend was, the officer came back with, “You are calling on an inside line, where the fuck are you?” Well, okay, I was taken aback, but I told her my room number. After all, she was a cop. She basically said that it was impossible that I was in that room number, because all the rooms in that part of the motel had been evacuated. Really? At this point, I grew concerned. Then I found out there was a SWAT team outside, that the man from the high desert (who was in the room next to me by the way) had taken hostages, and the bottom line was that my children and I were in danger.
The officer told me to get on the floor, behind the bed furthest from the front door, and to pull the mattress on top of us. I woke my kids up, told them we were playing a game, and more or less followed her instructions, except that I didn’t get under the mattress myself. For the next couple of hours I sat there, repeating the rosary over and over again, while my son wore my Miraculous Medal, and my daughter had my physical rosary around her neck. I was watching the window, not that I could see anything, because the drapes were drawn. But then I did see something, probably right after I heard a loudspeaker, giving orders to this man they were after. He came out of his room, carrying a loaded AK-47, and using his 14-month-old son as a human shield; then he sat on the outside part of the air condition that was under our window. In other words, if they had fired on him, the chances of rounds coming into the room were extremely high.
The SWAT officers finally got this man away from my window, got the baby away from him, and took him into custody. Later I learned that he had come down from the desert with two pounds of methamphetamine, and that he had more than one AK-47, as well as a drawer in one of the two rooms they were in, full of several hundred rounds of ammunition.
I’m not sure why or how I could have three such close brushes with gun violence, and never have suffered physical injury. I’m also not sure why I didn’t even remember this last incident until last week, unless it was because my mind intentionally blocked it out, or maybe it was just because there were other, equally traumatic, things going on in my life. My mom was not expected to survive her cancer, although she did for many years. I had been homeless, living on the street, for months. I often went without enough to eat in those days, and even during that time I was there with my kids, I fed them quality food, while I lived off toast with peanut butter, and Cheerios. So for whatever reason, this last, and unquestionably the most terrifying, brush with gun violence was not in the front of my brain. I’m also not sure what jogged the memory last week. But I know that my story, or stories, have value, and that by sharing them, there is something good that can come out of this.
(above image: Quiet Mike)
After three close experiences with gun violence, I sometimes now wonder, “Will the next time (God forbid there be a next time) be the time that I don’t survive?” But I refuse to live my life in fear, and I will never stop working to end gun violence.
If you, or someone you love, has been personally affected by gun violence, and you feel comfortable in doing so, please reach out to me via email. I can put you in touch with a great support network. My email is JanH.Nebraska@gmail.com
**I feel the need to add that my homelessness was not caused by my own piss poor planning, or lack wanting a home. Rather it was because I had, once again, trusted too fully, and had two roommates who screwed me over by moving out, after stealing everything of value from me, and leaving me in a position where I couldn’t afford the rent, nor could I save up the first/last months’ rent plus security deposit.